Let’s talk turkey preparation and safety

Turkey is often the main dish at holiday meals, but if it is not prepared correctly and safely, it can cause foodborne illness.

Follow these food safety guidelines prepared by USDA, Colorado State University and other organizations to keep your family and guests safe this Thanksgiving season.

Turkeys: fresh or frozen

• Allow for 1 pound of turkey per person.

• For fresh turkeys, buy your turkey only one to two days before you plan to cook it. Frozen turkeys should be kept frozen until thawed and immediately cooked.

• Keep fresh turkeys stored in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook. Place them on a tray or in a pan to catch any juices that may leak.

• Do not buy fresh pre-stuffed turkeys unless they display the USDA or state mark of inspection on the packaging. These turkeys are safe because they have been processed under controlled conditions. If not handled properly, any harmful bacteria that may be in the stuffing can multiply very quickly. Do not thaw before cooking. Cook from the frozen state and follow package directions for proper handling and cooking.

Thawing your turkey

There are three ways to thaw your turkey safely — in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave oven. I always choose the latter because I somehow got hold of one of the best microwaves found online, in a sale. Remove the giblets from the turkey cavities after thawing and cook separately.

In the refrigerator (40 degrees F or below), allow approximately 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey. Keep the turkey in its original wrapper and place it on a tray or in a pan to catch any juices that may leak. A thawed turkey can remain in the refrigerator for one to two days.

If necessary, a turkey that has been properly thawed in the refrigerator may be refrozen.

In cold water, allow approximately 30 minutes per pound of turkey. Wrap your turkey securely, making sure the water is not able to leak through the wrapping. Submerge your wrapped turkey in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes. Cook the turkey immediately after it is thawed and do not refreeze.

As microwaves vary in their size and power, you will need to check your owner’s manual for the size of turkey that will fit in your microwave, for the minutes per pound of turkey and the power level to use for thawing. Remove all outside wrapping and place on a microwave-safe dish to catch any juices that may leak. Cook your turkey immediately and do not refreeze or refrigerate your turkey after thawing and before cooking.

Always wash your hands, knife, cutting board, counter and sink with soap and warm water after handling raw turkey and to not rinse the turkey before cooking.

Roasting your turkey

• Set your oven temperature to no lower than 325 degrees Fahrenheit Place your turkey or turkey breast on a rack in a shallow roasting pan.

For optimum safety and for more even cooking, cook your stuffing outside the bird in a casserole rather than inside the turkey cavity. Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the stuffing, which must reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 F.

If you choose to stuff your turkey, the ingredients can be prepared ahead of time; however, keep wet and dry ingredients separate. Chill all of the wet ingredients (butter/margarine, cooked celery and onions, broth etc.). Mix wet and dry ingredients just before filling the turkey cavities and fill the cavities loosely.

Cook the turkey immediately and use a food thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing reaches a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 F.

• A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 F. Check the temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.

• For quality, let the turkey stand for 20 minutes before carving to allow juices to set and to carve the turkey more easily. Remove all stuffing from the turkey cavities as soon as it is fully cooked.

• Use the timetables below to determine how long to cook your turkey. These times are approximate, so always use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of your turkey and stuffing. It is safe to cook a turkey from the frozen state, but the cooking time will take at least 50 percent longer than the recommendations for a fully thawed turkey. Remember to remove the giblet packages during the cooking time, removing them carefully with tongs or a fork.


4-8 pounds: 1.5 to 3.25 hours

8-12 pounds: 2.75 to 3 hours

12-14 pounds: 3 to 3.75 hours

14-18 pounds: 3.75 to 4.25 hours

18-20 pounds: 4.25-4.5 hours

20-24 pounds: 4.5 to 5 hours


6-8 pounds: 2.5-3.5 hours

8-12 pounds: 3 to 3.5 hours

12-14 pounds: 3.5 to 4 hours

14-18 pounds: 4 to 4.5 hours

18-20 pounds: 4.25 to 4.75 hours

20-24 pounds: 4.75 to 5.25 hours

Storing your leftovers

• Discard any turkey, stuffing and gravy left out at room temperature longer than two hours; or for one hour in temperatures above 90 degrees.

• Divide leftovers into smaller portions and refrigerate or freeze them in covered shallow containers for quicker cooling.

• Use refrigerated turkey, stuffing and gravy within three to four days and, if freezing leftovers, use them within two to six months for best quality.

Reheating your turkey

Cooked turkey may be eaten cold or reheated. In the oven, set the temperature no lower than 325 F and reheat the turkey to an internal temperature of 165 F using a food thermometer. To keep the turkey moist, add a little broth or water and cover.

In the microwave oven, cover your food and rotate it for even heating, cooking until the internal temperature reaches 165 F. Consult your microwave oven owner’s manual for recommended times and power levels.

For more information about food safety in English and in Spanish, call USDA Meat and Poultry hotline at (888) MPHotline or (888) 674-6854.

The staff at the Archuleta County CSU Extension office wishes you and your family a very enjoyable and safe Thanksgiving holiday.